WASHINGTON – Divided Democrats struggling to enact President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda are confronting one of Congress’ cruelest conundrums: Your goals may be popular, but that doesn't ensure they'll become law or that voters will reward you.
Polls show the public likes health care, education and other initiatives proposed for the enormous package. But Democrats haven't successfully clinched the sale to voters, who've been distracted by the party's internal fight over the plan's multitrillion-dollar price tag, remain confused about what's actually in the measure and are skeptical it would help them personally.
History shows that widely supported ideas can fail in Congress anyway. Even enacting a well-liked measure doesn't mean that voters, come the next election, will reward the party behind that achievement. Also, Democrats are crafting their bill against a backdrop of a country hardened along partisan lines and as large majorities disapprove of how Washington is handling its job.
“Cynicism and the lack of trust in institutions," said Democratic pollster Molly Murphy. People "don’t think a whole lot gets done. And then that becomes a little self-fulfilling, they don’t pay attention” to what's happening in Washington.
To Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, "the popularity of particular policies has been overwhelmed by the power of partisanship and polarization.”
Progressive and centrist Democrats have fought for months over the package, which includes components that earn high marks in polls. Initially advanced as a 10-year, $3.5 trillion plan, moderates are forcing down its price tag.
Biden this week told lawmakers he thinks he can negotiate a compromise with centrists for a package closer to $2 trillion. To do so, Democrats are considering slicing the cost and duration of priorities such as the child tax credit, paid family leave and expanded federal health care benefits.
Those talks continue and success isn't guaranteed. But the party would have so much to lose from the collapse of Biden's top-tier domestic goal — plus an accompanying, bipartisan $1 trillion package of infrastructure projects — that pressure for cutting a deal is immense.
Republicans unanimously oppose the larger social and environmental measure.
Polling shows the public likes the overall plan and that many of its individual items draw extremely strong support, seemingly giving Democrats an edge. In a May poll by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly 9 in 10 backed letting the government force lower prescription costs by negotiating prices for the drugs it buys.
An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey in July found that about two-thirds or more supported bolstering affordable housing, caregiving for the elderly, free preschool and raising taxes on the rich and corporations to pay for much of the cost. Other polls have shown strong backing for creating paid family leave and curbing climate change.
Yet surveys have shown that frustrated party leaders have failed to clearly broadcast the plan’s contents and benefits to constituents during the monthslong legislative slog.
Two surveys this month had ominous signs for Democrats.
A CNN poll showed that only 1 in 4 people said their families would be better off if the legislation was enacted — including only about half of Democrats. A Gallup poll found that 43% want a stronger government push to solve problems, down from 54% who said so a year ago.
The spotlight on lawmakers battling over their proposal’s cost and policies has led many to say the communicating needs a better focus.
“Message the content rather than the process,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “As we say in our business, sell the brownie, not the mix.”
While Democrats have a solid chance of eventually coalescing around a compromise, there's precedent for popular ideas failing to pass Congress anyway.
A 2013 push to expand background checks for gun sales months after the mass killing of elementary school children in Newtown, Connecticut, fell short. So did a 2018 effort to help young “Dreamer” immigrants become citizens.
Both received strong Democratic backing in the Senate and some GOP support. But each fell victim to Republican-led tactics called filibusters that require 60 Senate votes to overcome. Democrats are using a special process that would let them approve this year's domestic measure by a simple majority vote, but they will need unanimous party support in the Senate and near-solid House backing to succeed.
The current domestic bill underscores how wide acceptance of an issue might mask intense dislike by one side's voters, making it easier for lawmakers of that party to oppose it.
In the AP-NORC survey, 76% of Democrats but just 27% of Republicans backed free community college. Extending more generous tax credits for children is favored by 73% of Democrats and 34% of Republicans. Housing aid and free preschool also won significantly more support from Democrats than Republicans.
Democrats also know that even passage of major legislation embodying Biden’s goals might not prevent major setbacks in next year’s midterm elections. That’s especially true in the House, where significant losses in such contests are historically routine.
Democrats lost 54 seats and House control in the 1994 elections despite approving significant budget and gun control measures under President Bill Clinton. They lost 64 seats and their House majority in 2010, months after enacting President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.
The party that holds the White House has gained House seats in just three of the 40 midterm elections since the Civil War. In the Senate, that party has gained seats in only 13 of those elections.
As of now, Republicans are on track to capture the House if they can pick up just five seats in next year’s voting. They would win Senate control if they gain one seat.
Associated Press writer Hannah Fingerhut contributed to this report.